Mindanao’s resonance to ecological risk

The benign climate—that was the first thing that was pointed out to me about Mindanao in the early 1980s, when I used to go there as part of a research team studying the banana export industry. Throughout the year, its winds were steady, gentle rain irrigated its fertile soil, its mountains were lush and its rivers deep, and above all, it was never visited by typhoons. That was the reason bananas thrived there.

In those years, banana plantations covered about 30,000 hectares of land, mostly in Davao del Norte, Compostela Valley, and South Cotabato. That milieu is rapidly changing. Just this week, 14,000 hectares of bananas were wiped out in the wake of Typhoon “Pablo.” But that is nothing compared to the scale of the human tragedy that fell on the town of New Bataan in Compostela Valley.

Last year, Tropical Storm “Sendong” dumped an unusual amount of rain on the cities of Cagayan de Oro and Iligan, swelling rivers and bringing catastrophic floods to areas that were previously thought safe. This time, Pablo, which started as a slow-moving depression off Eastern Micronesia, barreled through Mindanao on a west-northwest direction. Once more Cagayan de Oro appeared to lie on the typhoon’s path, but this bustling city was prepared and, as a result, hardly sustained any damage. Not so fortunate were the mining and farming provinces of Compostela Valley and Davao Oriental, where powerful winds and excessive rainfall left a shocking trail of death and devastation. No one knew until late Wednesday that hundreds had perished in mudslides and floodwaters that rose so suddenly people had no time to run to higher ground.

A visibly crestfallen P-Noy wondered what else could have been done to prevent the unexpectedly high death toll, now approaching 500. Pablo (international name: Bopha) had been carefully monitored for more than a week before it actually made landfall. Its movement was closely tracked and its likely course methodically plotted.

Learning from the Sendong experience, the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC) issued regular alerts to local governments, warning them of the developing weather situation and advising them to prepare residents in low-lying communities for quick evacuation.

A widely circulated geohazard map indicated to the concerned public officials which of the communities in their jurisdictions were most vulnerable to flash floods and landslides.

No, there wasn’t much more the government could have done to prevent this tragedy.  By its nature, the communication of ecological danger has low resonance in our society, even more so when it is connected to something as poorly understood as climate change.

Warnings of impending disaster are taken lightly where there is little concrete experience in which to frame them.

Because of modern technology, said Environment Secretary Ramon Paje in a recent TV interview, the authorities knew not only which towns were going to be hit but also, more or less, how strong the winds were going to be and how much rain the typhoon was packing.

But, such information would not have meant much to people who have lived in what had been for them, until now, a nurturing countryside.

As is usually the case during crises, a catastrophe like this is followed by a flurry of finger-pointing and blame-tossing. This habit is particularly prevalent in moralistic cultures like ours, and it is not confined to those who interpret natural disasters as God’s way of expressing displeasure over undesirable human actions.

We see it, too, in accounts that lay the blame for environmental disasters at the door, for example, of mining and logging operations. There is much truth in the latter, I’m sure. But identifying the villains, while morally satisfying, doesn’t really bring us any closer to understanding why communities tend to be indifferent to the environmental dangers to which they are exposed.

The reason for this must be sought in the way our society communicates the complex reality of ecological danger to itself. This is what is meant by resonance to environmental risk. We need to ask where communities turn to for information on the dangers posed by a changing environment. Notice how the communication of such information is coded differently as it passes through the channels of schools, the political system, the religious system, and so on.

To believe that it is sufficient to centralize the issuance of warnings and relevant information in the NDRRMC using radio, television, and the new social media is to assume that the message and its implications for action are uniformly understood. We should know by now that information from agencies like Phivolcs, Pagasa, and the NDRRMC is inescapably filtered by people’s own experiential horizons.

We don’t need to point to the sad experience of poor communities in remote places like those in Mindanao to validate this. We only need to see how the same geohazard maps showing areas of vulnerability along active geological faults are routinely ignored by property developers and homeowners in Metro Manila itself.

Communications from experts are easily drowned by the noise from other sources.

However we choose to adapt to our changing environment, one thing is sure: We will not be able to do this in any effective way until we learn to differentiate communications coming from scientists from those coming from politicians, businessmen, and religious preachers.

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